What percentage of 24-to-35-year-old Canadian women have a university degree in the following programs: Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science (STEM)?

That’s one of the questions we asked Museum visitors earlier this year at a Science by Night event in anticipation of the Museum’s exciting new exhibition Courage and Passion: Canadian Women in Natural Sciences which opened in July. (Keep reading for the answer!)

At Science by Night, several female colleagues in the Palaeobiology section of the Museum – myself included – featured a Women in Science kiosk, a mini-version of the current exhibition, where we profiled inspiring, trailblazing female Canadian researchers, including Alice Wilson, Madeleine Fritz and Francis Wagner. Some of the interesting facts we shared are profiled in the images and captions below.

portrait of Alice Wilson
Alice Wilson (1881-1964) was the first female geologist employed by the Geological Survey of Canada, hired in 1909. Despite the many barriers of being a woman in science in the early 1900s, Wilson persisted and became the first woman elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Image: Natural Resources Canada photo number 112040. Licensed under the Open Government Licence – Canada
Portrait of Madeleine Fritz
Madeleine Fritz (1896-1990) studied at McGill and the University of Toronto and became the Associate Director of Palaeontology at the Royal Ontario Museum. She was a leader in the study of Ordovician bryozoa (ancient, aquatic moss-like organisms) in North America, paving the way for many female scientists after her. Image: Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum.
Frances Wagner (1927-2016) was the first woman to work extensively in the field alongside male colleagues collecting mineral core samples in Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, the Northwest Territories and the Arctic Islands. She was a pioneer in micropaleontology, the study of microscopic fossils, and led this discipline when it was a breakthrough field. Image: Courtesy Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

We also wondered: how do museum visitors perceive the role of women in scientific fields today?

To find an answer and to spark discussion we asked visitors questions, including to estimate the percentages of young Canadian women today with a university degree in the following programs: Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science (STEM).

 Although our paper-and-pencil survey may not be a scientifically valid study, the results were definitely interesting. In general, participants thought that the number of young women with a degree in a science-related university program is lower than is actually the case. Interestingly, the average responses from male and female participants were almost identical.

For example, on average, participants guessed that women comprise 38-percent of degree holders in science and technology programs. However, based on 2011 Statistics Canada data on degree holders among 25-to-34-year-old, women hold 59-percent of these science-related degrees.

Participants’ estimates for mathematics and computer science were closer, with participants guessing that women hold 25-percent of these degrees, while the actual number is 30-percent. Only for engineering were participants’ estimates very close to reality, with participants’ guessing 24-percent and while the Statistics Canada data reveal that it’s 23-percent.

A wall with many hand-written post-it notes.
At the Women in Science kiosk at the Museum’s Science by Night event the wall was lined with Post-it notes with participants’ responses to the question: “Why is it important to have all genders equally represented in the field of science?” Most of the responses touched upon the idea that it is especially important to have equal representation to maximize scientific innovation, creativity, and competitiveness. Image: Marisa Gilbert, © Canadian Museum of Nature.

A number of possible interpretations could be made from these results, but I think it serves to highlight the accurate perception that the study of science remains male-dominated in universities. Men still do have greater representation in the field of science, and this has been the case historically for all the sciences.

But the situation is slowly changing. Based on the 2017 NSERC Women in Science and Engineering Summary, from 1992 to 2014 the number of women earning a Bachelor’s degree in natural sciences and engineering in Canada, as a percentage of all students, increased by 7.1-percent (from 31.6 to 38.7 percent). The increase for women achieving a Master’s science-related degree was 8.5-percent (from 27.4 to 35.9-percent) and at the Doctoral level the number of women earning science-related Ph.D.’s increased 11.1-percent (from 20.2 to 31.3-percent) in that 22-year period.

A child’s drawing.
At the Women in Science kiosk at the Museum’s Science by Night event children got involved by drawing what they think a scientist looks like. A five-year-old boy drew this picture of a scientist holding a microscope and a magnifying glass.

Though these may seem like small changes, they are positive ones. My hope is that by continuing to highlight these changes and by celebrating admirable and inspiring historical female scientists, who often don’t receive enough recognition, we can help prompt more girls and young women to enter the exciting world of science!